Downlights? Don’t use ‘em!

by Maskil on October 21, 2008

According to neighbourhood tradition, a previous owner of our home and his wife were both interior decorators/designers. They were responsible for many of the alterations, additions and “improvements” inflicted on said house. The people we purchased from and various neighbours referred to them as “the decorators”. Over time, we’ve come to think of them as “the ****ing idiots”; most of the “improvements” were poorly thought out, and even more poorly executed (or in many cases just never completed).

One of these less-than-inspired design choices was to install halogen downlights in four of the rooms (including the main bathroom). Based purely on my own observations and experience with this house, here’s why I think downlights are a bad idea, and are to be avoided at all costs:

More complicated design. Each fitting consists of a separate transformer in addition to the housing itself. The units are therefore more expensive, and more unreliable. We’ve replaced at least 6-8 in less than 3 years, all of them because the transformers had failed.

More complicated installation. Instead of a single light fitting in the middle of the ceiling, you’re looking at probably six or more separate fittings to be installed (depending on the size of the room). The holes for the fittings need to be lined up and spaced out nicely to avoid an unprofessional appearance.

More complicated maintenance. If anything is going to go wrong with the units, it’s likely to be with the transformer, which is inside the roof crawlspace. So, to maintain or replace the unit, you (or your electrician) are going to have to crawl around up there, instead of just standing on a ladder.

More complicated for thermal insulation. As part of the process of greening our house, I’ve just had Aerolite (“think pink”) thermal insulation installed in the ceiling of our home (excluding the outbuildings and roof areas without a crawlspace). Cutouts had to be made for each and every downlight, to avoid having the downlights overheat and burn out. This obviously slows down and complicates the installation process, and this wasted time is no doubt factored into the average installation cost.

Low voltage doesn’t mean low energy. Because the current is stepped down by the transformer, one might assume that the fitting are low energy. Far from it. Low voltage does not equate to low energy, while the standard lamps are a 50W halogen type. It is possible to replace these with 20W equivalents, but there’s no suitable CFL replacement available. LED replacements are now becoming available, but that’s still an expensive solution. So, if you’re concerned with the cost and environmental impact of your electricity usage, you’re not going to like these devices. (Presumably the heat generated by all those transformers is another measure of their inefficiency.)

In a nutshell: I’m no decorator, but there must be better ways to achieve whatever it is that downlights are supposed to achieve.

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